Finding Empowerment Through Pole Dancing

5 min
MaKayla Keating (R) and her dance partner stretch before practicing their pole dancing routine at a studio in San Francisco. (Samantha Shanahan/KQED)

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MaKayla Keating, 22, emerges from the wings of the stage wearing a skintight halter top and skirt -- both almost blinding with sequins. She walks up to a vertical metal pole anchored to the ground, just like you’d see in a strip club.

But that’s not where we are.

“Next up in event 401,” an announcer exclaims, “please welcome Team SF Pole representing San Francisco Pole and Dance.”

This is a pole dancing competition. And it’s Keating’s first. When she approaches the pole, Keating starts with a staple move called “the dip spin.” In this move, Keating grabs the pole with one hand and then twirls around the pole with one leg extended.

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Pole dancing can be sensual, and for some, it’s hypersexualized. And that’s a bit tricky these days at a time when there’s so much discussion about sexual harassment and unwanted attention to women’s bodies.

But when Keating discovered pole dancing, she found power and confidence in herself despite the stigma.

MaKayla Keating in San Francisco. She started taking pole dancing classes seven months ago. (Samantha Shanahan/KQED)

Keating grew up in rural Indiana in a family of conservative Baptist Christians. Every Sunday, she was obligated to go to church with her family. “I’d just sit there,” she says, “and I was always the one getting in trouble for questioning the Bible.”

On Christmas Day, when Keating was 10 years old, her uncle asked her if she believed in Jesus. She said no. And her aunt, who overhead Keating’s response, told her she was going to hell. “That was pretty traumatizing,” she recalls. “I always felt kinda like the black sheep.”

And things weren’t much better at school either. Keating was an artistic kid with a big imagination. “It would turn the other kids off from me,” she says, “so there was some isolation and a bit of bullying.”

Like many young teenagers, Keating also struggled with her self-image. “I was just an awkward chubby girl who was deemed weird from an early age.”

After getting into an argument with her family, Keating decided she was done with Indiana. She moved to San Francisco and started going to college. She saw San Francisco as a place where everyone was free to be themselves.

But during her freshman year, Keating’s insecurities about herself -- both physically and mentally -- began to creep up on her. One day, she went to a doctor who wrote in his chart that she was overweight. It devastated her.

“Self confidence-wise, I just didn’t want to go out,” Keating says. “I didn’t want to do anything.”

Keating struggled with what she was going to do. So she started going to the gym every day -- sometimes twice a day -- and within a year lost 70 pounds. But something was missing. “I lost all the weight but still mentally I did not feel great about myself.”

MaKayla Keating showing a before-and-after photo of herself after she lost 70 pounds. (Samantha Shanahan/KQED)

About seven months ago, one of her classmates started raving about a pole dancing class she’d taken. Like a lot of people, Keating thought pole dancing was mostly just for strippers. But she was curious, so she checked it out.

And it was a revelation.

“When you’re up in the air,” Keating says, “it’s kinda like flying.” On the pole, she discovered she was stronger than she ever knew. Keating says she remembers when doing a pullup seemed impossible. “Now I can just pull myself up no problem.”

Keating ditched her gym membership and now devotes most of her free time to pole dancing at a studio in San Francisco. One of the most challenging tricks she has learned is called the “Hey Girl.”

To start, MaKayla climbs the pole. She then sandwiches the pole into her bicep and squeezes as hard as she can. “I usually get a big bruise after this one,” she says. Then using her arm and abdominal muscles, Keating swings her hips around the pole and spreads her legs open into a straddle.

“It hurts so bad,” she says, “but it looks really cool so it’s worth it.”

Keating is using her skin as a kind of friction brake on the pole. It’s why pole dancers always wear a minimal amount of clothing. It’s not just about sexuality. It’s about technique and safety. A pole dancer’s body is in a constant battle with gravity. You want to climb up. Gravity pushes you down. You want to flip yourself upside-down? Gravity wants to keep you right-side-up.

MaKayla Keating (R) and her dance partner practice their routine at San Francisco Pole and Dance. (Samantha Shanahan/KQED)

But when Keating calls her family back in Indiana, she doesn’t talk about pole dancing. “If you were in my shoes, would you tell your mother?" she asks. "If I were just to say, ‘Oh, I’m pole dancing,’ she’s thinking stripper in the club, booty twerking, dollar bills being thrown.”

Pole dancing didn’t become synonymous with sensuality until the 1920s. Dancing with, on or around a pole has been part of many cultures. It actually began hundreds of years earlier, and has roots in 12th century Chinese acrobatics. Poles were covered with rubber instead of metal and performers would do tricks fully clothed.

Now, pole dancing is just one more growing fitness trend -- like yoga or pilates -- with over 70 studios in California alone. And yes, you can take a "sensual" or "exotic" pole dancing class in a studio. Or you can dance to Broadway show tunes and Disney songs. One San Francisco teacher has even built a routine around a poem about sexual assault.

Keating’s first competition is at a small college in San Bruno. She and her dance partner, Cynthia Younes, practice in front of the mirror. Men and women of all sizes and different levels of pole dancing experience are stretching, putting on their costumes and laughing with their pole mates on the couch.

It’s a welcoming environment, despite the anxiety and tension of the competition.

MaKayla Keating (R) and her dance partner Cynthia Younes rehearse their routine backstage at Skyline College in San Bruno. (Samantha Shanahan/KQED)

After they stretch and warm up, Keating and Younes head backstage. “We’re just going to go out there and do our best," she says. "I’m sure it’ll be great.”

The women begin the routine away from the pole with their backs to the crowd. The song “Slice of Heaven” by Melody Sweets begins as the dancers raise their arm over their heads, one at a time, and then they turn to the audience. After a sensual floor sequence, they move to the pole.

Keating says the routine is about the power of sisterhood. They begin the routine together, but eventually each dancer lets the other have the spotlight. So Keating will do her “Hey Girl” spin while Younes does some basic twirls around them both. At the end, the dancers come together.

“Two girls. One pole,” Keating says. “It’s a super combination.”

The performance ends with big applause. The duo doesn’t win anything, but Keating doesn’t care. “We didn’t really know what to expect going out there,” she says, “but we just had fun.”

MaKayla Keating (L) and her dance partner Cynthia Younes walk on stage for their first pole dancing competition at Skyline College in San Bruno. (Samantha Shanahan/KQED)

A couple of weeks later, MaKayla Keating came out to her mother. As a pole dancer. And it wasn’t as bad as she feared.

Her mother was initially concerned about its association with strip clubs. But Keating showed her pole dancing videos from class and her mother accepted her.

“This is just the happiest I’ve been in like so long because of the confidence that pole gives you," MaKayla says. She added that she’s definitely going to compete again. But next time, she’ll tell her mother about it.

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